Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Producing director Steve Stettler has seen the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company through some difficult challenges in recent years.
Editor’s note: This continues a weekly series of interviews with the state’s arts leaders.
By Jim Lowe
Weston Playhouse, it is generally conceded, is king in Vermont’s theater world, and the company was dealt a double whammy that certainly befits a king.
Not only was the summer theater hit by the Great Recession but Tropical Storm Irene flooded the whole bottom floor of the Weston Playhouse, the historic community-owned home of the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company (its formal name). The damage was enormous.
“For us that meant a considerable capital project that, just a month before Irene, had created the theater’s first orchestra pit in 75 years and expanded dressing rooms, improved access by creating an elevator between the main floor and the lower floor where our cabaret and our restaurant are located, all of which was wiped out by the flood,” Steve Stettler, WPTC’s resident producing artistic director, said of the August 2011 disaster.
“Happily, by the next summer, our friends had rallied to the cause and helped us raise another half-million to replace it all — and do it even better,” he said.
“I would say that the last few years have held the greatest unanticipated challenges in our 25-year ‘reign of terror’ running Weston Playhouse,” Stettler added with a laugh.
Weston Playhouse, since 1937, has been presenting professional summer theater in what the Boston Globe once dubbed “the most beautiful theater in New England.”
Specializing in Broadway musicals, but regularly stepping off the beaten path, Weston each season presents seven full productions, four on the main stage at the Playhouse, and two Equity and one Young Company production for families at “Other Stages,” its alternate theater in the Weston Rod & Gun Club. (Weston is an Equity professional theater in contract with the national actors’ union, Actors’ Equity Association.)
This summer’s offerings include the hit comedy, “Educating Rita,” and the popular musical, “42nd Street,” as well as the less-known rock musical “Next to Normal,” on the main stage. The season will close with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which play to school audiences as well.
Other Stages will feature the premieres of the musical “Loving Leo” and the one-man show “This Blessed Plot.” The Young Company will present “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”
In addition, Weston offers its aprčs-theater Cabaret, with three programs annually, after performances during the first three main stage productions. Also offered are a series of single special events and, throughout the year, education and outreach programs.
For 25 years now, Stettler has been part of a triumvirate of producing directors, along with Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort, leading the theater. A number of years ago, Stettler became the year-round resident producing director and a managing director, Stuart Duke, was added to the permanent staff.
Weston currently operates on a $1.5 million budget, brought down from nearly $1.7 million by the recession. About 60 percent comes from ticket sales, while 40 percent is from contributions and grants.
“It’s pretty healthy,” Stettler said. “The national split these days is about 50-50.”
Although Irene did plenty of damage, it was the recession starting in 2008 that really hurt Weston.
“So it really was our 2009 season in which we were actually able to anticipate a very different world and made significant cuts and changes to accommodate that,” Stettler said.
That meant drastic curtailment, not once but twice.
“We did it then and we did it again a year ago when we found that, again, probably as a result of both the Irene challenges and the not completely improved economy, we were still not running at the level we hoped to,” Stettler said.
“And in both cases it meant taking what was already a fairly lean machine, given the size and ambition of our working programs, and cutting it down to the bare essentials.”
That meant eliminating some of the few year-round staff positions, outsourcing the work, and freezing wages for both year-round and seasonal staff and artists. Instead of presenting premieres of expensive full-scale musicals, like 2011’s “Saint-Ex” and 2012’s “Pregnancy Pact,” Weston is presenting the much smaller “Loving Leo” at the Rod & Gun Club this year.
“We had to get rid of what, at that point, looked to be frills but hadn’t felt that way before,” Stettler said. “We used to feed the entire company at our expense in the cabaret on any day in which they had a matinee and an evening performance, so they didn’t have the burden of having to get back to their various houses and prepare a meal.”
Of course that, and many other “frills,” ended.
But Weston worked hard to make sure that audiences saw none of this.
“Let’s face it, all of us, whether we’re in the arts or not, have had to learn to operate differently in these past few years,” Stettler said. “So what remained most important to us was the quality of the art and the way in which we treat our artists — and still provide the service and entertainment and stimulation to our audiences.
“I think everyone involved would say that hasn’t changed — and, if anything, it’s continued to progress,” he said.
For the future, Weston is focusing on the size and makeup of its audiences. Several years ago, a survey found that Weston’s audience was comprised of roughly one-third year-round residents, one-third second-home owners, and one-third regular visitors.
“We probably know more of our audience, more often by face than by name, than most theaters in the country because one or most of us who produce here are in the lobby of one or both of the theater spaces most evenings,” Stettler said. “Our perception is that is still roughly the split.”
But attendance has definitely gone down in recent years.
“At our height we would have close to 20,000-21,000 people attending the theater. We’ve seen that drop by several thousand,” Stettler said.
“One of the things we’re working very hard at — and we’ve got a number of initiatives we’re going to be unveiling soon this year to do that — is not just to reach a larger and broader audience, but also a younger audience — something that the arts, really nationally and internationally, is struggling to do.”
Stettler believes that among today’s younger generation, fewer and fewer are being introduced to live performing arts.
“We feel that it’s absolutely essential, not just to our survival, but more importantly, to the living of a full life, to make sure that the performing arts are still of value in the lives of everybody who grows up around here,” he said.
“That makes the school programs around here important, but it also means we have to play with curtain times, pricing, programming — with other opportunities related to the social experiences of people coming together at the theater.”
With its history of professional success, it seems likely that Weston Playhouse will continue to bring topnotch, compelling theater to Vermont audiences.
“We’re very excited and encouraged with both our plans for the summer and ambitious plans for the future. I think one of the things about which we’re most proud is that we’ve proved as an institution to be adaptable and resilient,” he said.
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